"What is so exciting about yams? Everything!" Zobi, a taxi-driving muppet, shouts in a Nigerian lilt to anyone who will listen. "I can fry the yam. I can toast it. I can boil it. I love yams!"
"Sesame Street," once a mainstay for a generation of Nigerian children who grew up with the U.S. show on the state-run TV network, will return to screens in Africa's most populous nation this fall, funded by American taxpayers but distinctively Nigerian.
Produced and voiced by Nigerians in formal — if squeaky — English, the show aims to educate a country nearly half of whose 150 million people are 14 or younger. Its issues focus on the same challenges faced by children in a country where many have to work instead of going to school: AIDS, malaria nets, gender equality — and yams, a staple of Nigerian meals.
"Nigeria is diverse; we have 250 different ethnic groups, so many different languages. We don't have the same customs; we do think differently," executive producer Yemisi Ilo said. But "children are children. All children love songs and all children love furry, muppety animal-type things."
Renamed "Sesame Square," the show will air 26 episodes in the first of its scheduled three seasons, with one show for each letter of the alphabet.
The lead muppets are Kami, whose yellow fur matches the dandelion on her vest, and Zobi, who resembles a mint-green shag carpet. Kami is an orphan with HIV who explains blood safety to children through her own story. Zobi, whose yellow cab lacks an engine, teaches by ineptness, getting entangled in a mosquito net while explaining malaria prevention.
They live not on a fictional U.S. city street but in "Sesame Square," whose concrete homes and slatted windows mirror those found in Nigerian villages.
"A village square is somewhere where people gather around, it's the news and information," Ilo said. "It's all across Nigeria."
The muppets' adventures take place between original recorded "Sesame Street" segments, re-dubbed with Nigerians voicing the parts of familiar characters like Bert and Ernie. One live-action scene shows hijab-wearing girls in the Muslim-majority north kicking a soccer ball and proudly saying they can do anything a boy can do.
The Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit that oversees "Sesame Street," received a five-year, $3 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development. That comes after the government agency funded a 2007 pilot project featuring Kami and Big Bird discussing HIV infections and AIDS.
The new series underscores the ever-broadening reach of "Sesame Street" since it debuted in the U.S. in 1969. The Sesame Workshop has overseen short- and long-term productions of country-specific shows in more than 140 nations, ranging from "Rechov Sumsum" in Israel to South Africa's "Takalani Sesame," where Kami first appeared.
But Nigeria represents the first effort to bring a long-term "Sesame Street"-styled program to West Africa, said Naila Farouky, an international program director for the workshop. Discussions continue about potentially expanding into Ghana and Southern Africa, she said.
Nigerian grown-ups like producer Jadesola Oladapo can still hum "Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street?" The show marked the start of the broadcast day on state-run television into the 1980s and whenever the theme song came on, "I would run to make sure my chores were done," she said.
"Sesame Square" still faces the challenge of winning a mass audience in a country where most people earn under a dollar a day. TV sets and DVD players aren't enough; organizers bring generators to power them, in an oil-rich country whose national power grid is in shambles.
Still, for children gathered on the worn floors of community centers and rundown schools, "Sesame Square" offers a glimpse of something beyond crushing poverty.
"We had comments from children asking if these muppets are from heaven," said Ayobisi Osuntusa, who oversees outreach for the program.
Sesame Workshop: http://www.sesameworkshop.org/
U.S. Agency for International Development: http://www.usaid.gov/